Last week, I did an outreach activity with a class of grade 5-8 gifted students. These events typically go like this: the first day the students learn about impact craters, how they are formed, etc.. They then learn about dependent/independent variables and are given a demonstration of a cratering experiment (dropping balls into a bin of flour). We tell them how they can design their own experiments (choosing to change one independent variable, keeping all others constant, they can measure a change in one dependent variable). The second day, they design and run their experiments. The final day, we come back to the classroom to find out what they did, what issues they had, etc., and then do a show-and-tell with impact rocks and meteorites.
This class, however, took things in a completely different direction. Apparently, during the second day, they began to talk about whether funding for space exploration should be continued. They got so wrapped up in this discussion that the teacher wanted them to act out a debate with us (the “experts”) there to add information as necessary.
So, on the third day, we ran this debate. Each student decided how they felt about the subject and were congregated by groups around tables (yes to human and robotic space exploration, yes to only robotic missions, no to everything, and undecided). Each group then got about 5 minutes to talk amongst themselves to decide which points they wanted to present during the debate. Then, one person from each group got about 1-2 minutes to list their points. After each group went, the debate began!
It was really interesting hearing their opinions (and what those opinions were based on), and how passionate they were about them. We tried our best to stay out of it, but we did interject facts if someone was way off (for example, gas on Jupiter is NOT the same gas we put in our cars). Many people actually changed their minds, so changed tables during the process.
During the debate, we took notes, so at the end we addressed a few points that were brought up a lot. For example, many talked about the economics of spending so much money on space exploration, so we let them know that NASA gets less than 1% of the American budget (we tried not to imply whether that is too much or too little).
At the end, there were still two students decidedly in the “we should NOT explore space” category — that is, until we brought up the fact that the iPod one of the girls was taking notes on wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for missions to space. Same with GPS, satellite TV, and cell phones (here’s an awesome site about spin-off technology). They moved over to another group pretty quick after that!
Even though the students need to work on their fact checking and debate skills, it was really rewarding to be a part of something like that. I feel good about the future of our world with these kids in it.